Tech talk

Here are 3 pieces of Houston startup advice from Capital Factory's emerging tech panel

As a part of its Texas Startup Manifesto, Austin-based Capital Factory came into town to talk about the Houston's ecosystem and advice for tech startups looking to do business in town. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Throughout the year, Austin-based Capital Factory loads up a bus and takes startup founders and tech entrepreneurs around the Lone Star State in order to better connect the dots of innovation within Texas' major metros. The Texas Startup Manifesto bus recently put it in park outside Station Houston and hosted a tech-focused panel at Accenture's innovation hub.

The panel, which was hosted by two deep tech startup founders, asked some important questions about Houston's ecosystem and startup needs to three experts. Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmontics and Diana Liu of Arix Technologies represented the startups, while Allison Sawyer of League of Worthwhile Ventures, Mark Volchec of Las Olas VC, and Brian Richards of Accenture fielded their questions.

The panel started out with the state of Houston's innovation ecosystem — which, of course, was the whole point of the one-day field trip to the Bayou City. The panelists seemed to agree that Houston has things it needs to improve on, but the point is not to try to copy any other market.

"We can't try to be Silicon Valley. We're just simply not," Richards says. "What we have to focus on is what our strengths are."

For instance, Houston has a lot of money within the city, but that hasn't yet translated to a large amount of investments in startups. Even if the city found $1 billion to start investing in companies, Richards says that wouldn't solve everything instantly. Houston has to be able work on the ecosystem as a whole, not just one thing in particular.

"We have so many problems to solve, and we have to solve them in parallel," Richards says. "We have to fix them all at once."

The city's ecosystem aside, the panel weighed in on some of their own advice for tech startups making waves in Houston.

Hire a business-minded leader, like, yesterday.

One of the most crucial aspect for any startup is the team behind the product, and having a diversity of expertise on that team is especially in tech startups, which are usually instigated by a tech-focused founder.

"I think it's really important to have a balanced founding team," Volchec says. "If everyone is tech, I think it's really difficult."

As a venture capitalist and former founder himself, Volchec's biggest critique is that, startups and founders don't start sales early enough. Volchec says he once signed a deal with a company before they even had a product let alone revenue. The key distinguisher for him was that the company already had contracts in place from customers.

Having that person to sell the company is so important, and you need a business-focused person at the helm to do so. For most companies, that's not the tech-minded founder.

"If you're the scientist, why do you even want to be the CEO?" Volchec asks. "The CEO's job is to be out there and selling — to investors, to clients, to employees."

According to the panelists, sooner is better for making that hire.

"if you don't hire a CEO, and you raise enough money, someone will hire a CEO for you, and you might not like that CEO," Volchec says.

Have a free discovery.

In particular, B-to-B companies should have a free trial, so to speak, for their product. It's Sawyer's pet peeve, she says, when startups charge for the discover process. It's strategic to give access to some people within the company your startup is trying to sell to, that way they get hooked and want to get more access for their whole team.

It does make the process a little more challenging, Sawyer says, since it requires a little more upfront funds.

"You do have to raise a little bit more money, but you do get to scale a lot faster," she says.

Corporate venture groups can be more than just investment. 

When looking to scale your product into bigger corporations, a way in is through corporate venturing groups, according to the panelists, even if money isn't the right fit. You're more likely to get a meeting with a venture arm than with the company itself.

"I never took corporate venture money, because they were a little too slow and it was a lot of extra accounting work, Sawyer says. "But I loved working with corporate venture when it comes to pilots. I think they are an underused resource for startups."

It also helps that more and more companies are devoting resources to these groups.

"I'm seeing corporate venture groups all over the place," Sawyer says. "Even if you're not taking their money, they will get you in the door for a pilot."

Overall, big companies are more keen to work with startups of late, says Richards, who hosts C-level execs from big companies on a daily basis in Accenture's Innovation Hub.

"I've never seen [corporations] more motivated than they are right now to be able to think differently on how they are able to engage Houston," he says.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.